The Sydney Riots: The Bra Boys and the Lebs

YOU MAY HAVE seen images on TV of riots in Sydney. It came as a surprise to me. I’m not there, so it’s hard for me to say what’s really going on. But that is the task of today’s Whiskey & Gunpowder.

In a nutshell, this is what I’d call “blowback” from the multiculturalism advocated (and sometimes forced) by governments, the media, and institutions of, ahem, higher learning. It will continue, whether in Paris or Sydney or London. And it will test the ability of so-called liberal societies (in the classic sense, meaning live-and-let-live) to welcome and integrate immigrants who come from nonliberal cultures.

Now, the white yobs throwing beer bottles at anyone who looks brown (of Middle Eastern descent) are the very definition of illiberal. Wire service stories on the matter report that an anti-outsider environment has surfaced before at this particular beach in Cronulla. And even if Sunday’s riot was in retaliation for an earlier attack by Australians of Lebanese descent (Lebs is the non-PC term used) on white lifeguards, it would still be vigilantism.

In other words, both parties to the recent run-ins are behaving illiberally, whether they are motivated by alcohol, nationalism, or religion. The question that occupies us today is whether this factional violence will spread from the margins of society into the mainstream. Will the crowd become a mob, not just in Australia, but in other countries with large immigrant populations?

This is the first of several articles where I’ll take a look at what’s tripping globalization up, and ultimately, how it affects us as investors. But first, some context. Here are some excerpts from a local press account of the violence that has erupted between white Australians and Australians of Middle Eastern descent:

“Lebanese Muslim leader Keysar Trad says he and Maroubra’s surfer gang, the Bra Boys, are attempting to broker a peace deal between rival groups after race riots in Sydney…

“Mr. Trad said the Bra Boys were one of the most multicultural groups of surfers in Australia and showed people from all backgrounds could enjoy the beach….

“‘What you are seeing today is people who are trying to…heal the rift and to bring society together and show everyone that we can stand together united against violence and welcome everyone to the beaches and say that the beaches are a public space for everyone to enjoy’….

“Mr. Trad said he did not know who was responsible for circulating new text messages, including one declaring war between Sydney’s youths of Middle Eastern ethnicity and Australians.

“The new messages follow a round of similar ones sent last week, calling for retaliation after an attack on surf lifesavers at Cronulla on Dec. 3.

“‘These messages are out of place in Australian society, they incite the sort of violence that we have seen, and what we need to do is send messages of friendship and goodwill, rather than messages of hate’

“Eleven men were arrested as a new wave of unrest hit the city overnight in apparent reprisal attacks for Sunday’s race riot at Cronulla, where alcohol-fuelled mobs chased and bashed people who they believed were of Middle Eastern backgrounds.”

The Sydney Riots: Federalist No. 10

This talk of violence between two different factions — the surfer (or “surfies,” as they’re called) and the “Lebs” got me to thinking about James Madison and his famous essay on the matter, Federalist No. 10.

What did Madison have to say on the matter? And what might he think about today’s situation? Since this is Whiskey & Gunpowder, I decided to take a look:

Madison begins:

“By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

“There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

“There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

“It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

“The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.”

If we can’t remove the causes of faction, without crushing liberty, how are we to deal with the consequences?:

“The inference to which we are brought is, that the causes of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.

“If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. Let me add that it is the great desideratum by which this form of government can be rescued from the opprobrium under which it has so long labored, and be recommended to the esteem and adoption of mankind.

“By what means is this object attainable? Evidently by one of two only. Either the existence of the same passion or interest in a majority at the same time must be prevented, or the majority, having such coexistent passion or interest, must be rendered, by their number and local situation, unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression. If the impulse and the opportunity be suffered to coincide, we well know that neither moral nor religious motives can be relied on as an adequate control. They are not found to be such on the injustice and violence of individuals, and lose their efficacy in proportion to the number combined together, that is, in proportion as their efficacy becomes needful.”

But if moral or religious motives can’t prevent a faction from becoming a mob, and a mob from becoming violent, what can? A political order is needed. But of what sort? Not democracy, says Madison. It is too susceptible to passion:

“A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual.”

See also: Beat the living bejeebus out of the obnoxious individual, be he a “surfie” or a “Leb.”

The Sydney Riots: The Best Defense against Faction

Madison goes on to recommend a republican form of government as the best defense against faction. Not a pure democracy, but a representative democracy. And the larger the republic, the better. The larger the republic, the less chance that the institutions of law and order will be hijacked by disingenuous electoral process schemers. Or as Madison writes, in the large republic…

“each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.”

Madison’s last proposition is a hopeful one, to be sure: that our elected officials will “possess the most attractive merit.” But Madison is really arguing that the larger the union of factions — under the same rule of law — the more unlikely it is that any one faction will garner enough critical mass to put a knife in the back of the body politic and upset or overthrow the established political order. These “factious leaders” can cause trouble. But they can’t tear the fabric of civilizations apart when they are effectively marginalized by a large republic with lots of competing interests:

“The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State.

“In the extent and proper structure of the Union, therefore, we behold a republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government. And according to the degree of pleasure and pride we feel in being republicans, ought to be our zeal in cherishing the spirit and supporting the character of Federalists.”

Note that Madison implicitly calls the “rage for paper money” an “improper” and “wicked project.” I wonder what he would say today about our monetary system?

But back to faction for now.

Madison was assuming that in a large republic the potency of particularly vile factions would dissipate and weaken. But in the age of the 24-hour media cycle, it could be that the potency of faction does not dissipate at all. Rather, it increases. The passions of factions are magnified, even distributed, by the media.

In Sydney, it was text messaging that played a part in the organizing of the actual violence. It was talk radio that amplified the passions of a few on the margin into the violence of a mob on the street.

Madison, of course, was not addressing how to contain the effects of faction on a global scale. That is a task that I believe free markets and a liberal society might do on their own. But the problems of globalization are clearly problems of faction. Though there were undoubtedly significant and meaningful differences of opinion in Madison’s America over how to organize civil society, were those differences as complex or as intractable as today’s differences seemingly are? Would Madison recommend the same remedy, a large global republic?

The Sydney Riots: The Limits of a Nation-stateI doubt it. First, I have no idea what Madison might say, but I’ll say this: We are running up against the limits of the idea of a nation-state. One definition of a “nation” is a group of people who share common customs, history, origins, and usually the same language.

This is just the sort of definition globalization, with the easy crossing of national borders, challenges. Yet practical experience is showing us that you can sometimes take the people out of a nation but not the nation out of the people. The rioters in France were mostly French, but not “of France.” They have become a large, unintegrated bloc, a culture within a culture, a culture at odds with its host culture.

Is the same thing happening here in Australia? Australia has a rich and successful history of accepting, welcoming, and integrating immigrants, especially Europeans, although the indigenous population of Australia might have a thing or two to say about how well it was treated. European immigrants to Australia, however, like so many who came to America in the 19th and 20th centuries, came because they were deliberately fleeing their original culture, looking for a new opportunity. Perhaps previous generations of immigrants assimilated better because they wanted to be Australian or American, not Greco-Australian or Italian-American.

But in the age of multiculturalism, difference (faction) is prized over sameness, which is seen as oppressive and vaguely racist. Difference is encouraged, while that tiresome word “unity” is trotted out. Unity in what, though? And that’s assuming unity itself is even desirable. Who made that decision? Lincoln?

Friendship, goodwill, and unity don’t arise among neighbors simply by talking, although that helps. They arise because people share a common fidelity to something about the culture. The least common denominator of that culture — if it’s not morality or religion — must be a respect for the fairness and impartiality of the law and the use of force by the government.

When you see vigilantes taking the law into their own hands, respect for the law as an effective arbiter of disagreements is definitely diminished. Instead of trusting the police, bystanders attack them. What that really means is that people feel like they no longer have enough in common with each other to respect each other’s property or safety, the very right which Madison says is the “first object of government to protect.”

What do we have here, then? Is it a bunch of drunk and macho teenagers brawling with each other, who just happen to have different colored skin?

Or are there much deeper factions within Australia and other Western nations, brought about by unsuccessful attempts to assimilate immigrant populations into the host culture? And if it’s that, why is it just now showing up? Has a tipping point been reached?

Let’s put the question in blunt political terms: Have the elite governments of liberal societies created immigration programs that allow, or even incentivize, for the relocation of illiberal immigrant groups in their midsts?

Can liberal societies tolerate illiberal and unassimilated immigrant groups? Or better yet, can liberal societies remain unchanged with unassimilated immigrant groups who may hold illiberal values?

Certainly not in their current form. And I suspect that is what much of the anxiety over immigration is about. You cannot bring in new elements to a culture without changing the culture. Some of the change is good, like the contribution black jazz musicians have made to America’s culture. Some of it is not.

It’s not up for me to decide which is which. But all of it is disruptive. Yet normally, the culture (the melting pot) does that all on its own. It dilutes, diffuses, and recombines those differences into something new that everyone can live with.

It does not seem to be doing it very well right now, however. Or at the very least, the current global climate, charged by Samuel Huntington’s idea that there is a clash of civilizations, is making it very difficult.

It’s tempting to say that if everyone were wealthier, the problems would go away. But poverty is not the root cause of faction. Humanity is the root cause of faction.

People are different. We believe different things, worship different gods, and eat different animals. Thank God for that. The question today is on what scale can we live with each other’s difference?

It’s one thing if the man one ocean over has three wives, one husband, and eats a dog for dinner. It’s another thing if that man is your neighbor.

The neighborhood is suddenly not as congenial as we thought. But what’s next? More on that in a future Whiskey. But I’ll give you a hint. My colleague Justice Litle calls it “Digital Feudalism.”

Until next time,
December 14, 2005

P.S. By the way, I am a big fan of legal immigration. Immigrants are generally the most ambitious risk takers a culture has to offer. They are willing to leave everything familiar for something unknown. Perhaps it is easier to do when you are fleeing from poverty and toward wealth. But immigrants are exactly the kind of people a nation should embrace. What we’re seeing now is immigrants who may not be embracing the culture to which they’ve immigrated, or the host culture upset that what started out as a nice supply of cheap labor has turned into something that’s changing the culture itself.

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